Laos Calling

8 Sep
Young Laotian Monks looking over the Mekong - Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Young Monks looking over the Mekong – Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Vietnam on one side, and Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia on the other. The center of the country is mountainous with huge karst stone formations shooting out of the earth. There are various rivers intersecting the country from the north to the south and east to the west — the most important of which is the Mekong. In addition to its role in moving people and goods around the country and beyond, the Mekong holds an important position in the Lao national identity because it separates the Laotian capital of Vientiane (or Vieng Chang – translated as the “City of Sandalwood”) from the north-central border of Thailand. So, this river is like a moat and has insulated and defined the borders of those city-state kingdoms which have vied for power in the region throughout the centuries. The Lanna Kingdom was the largest of these regional powers and it dominated a good chunk of north-central Southeast Asia for over 200 years. At its zenith, this kingdom stretched from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (which are part of Thailand today) north up to Luang Prabang (the oldest and first capital of Laos). Luang Prabang is today one of the best preserved and temple rich cities in all of Asia. During its time as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Buddhism flourished and a unique Laotian style of artwork employing stencil and mosaic designs was created. But, the same geographic features of Luang Prabang which allowed it to be insulated and free from destruction at the hands of foreign invaders were ultimately the reasons that led to its unseating as capital. The city is like an island that is cut off by the confluence of both the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers from the rest of mountainous terrain around it. Thus, any foreign army that wanted to imprison the Lanna King simply had to surround the city by stationing troops on the 2 main sides of the rivers’ embankments and then block the one overland escape route out of the city. It was because of this vulnerability that King Chaiyasetthathirat (or King Setthatirath) decided in the 1560s to move his capital from Luang Prabang to the southern city of Vientiane.

Ha Phreow - Front facade

Ha Phreow – Front facade

One of King Setthatirath’s first acts at his new capital was to build a temple specifically for the purpose of enshrining the Emerald Buddha. This temple was called Ha Phreow and the Emerald Buddha resided there for the next 215 years until 1778 when a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri (who would become King Rama I of Thailand) stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken to where it is now housed in a temple in Bangkok [See previous post for history of the Emerald Buddha: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ%5D. Ha Phreow was later burned down by another Thai ransacking of Vientiane in the 1820s and was then rebuilt by the French in the 1920s. Today, the inside of Ha Phreow rings a bit hollow because the Emerald Buddha is not there, however, there are a some finely detailed Buddha bronze and stone images located in the front of the temple entrance and other images are placed along the temple’s sides.

Stone Buddha image in double abhaya mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “double abhaya” mudra – Ha Phreow

Most of these Buddha images are about 3/4 the average human size and I found three of them particularly interesting because of their unique mudras. All three images showed the Buddha standing with a cape-like robe and were dark in appearance. The first depicted the Buddha with his hands pointed outward with palms out.  This mudra is known as the “No Fear” or “Don’t Fight” mudra (or the double abhaya mudra). One story credits this gesture to a pose the Buddha used when an elephant charged at him. When the elephant saw the Buddha’s hands push out towards it, the elephant stopped in its tracks and sat down before the Buddha. Other traditions maintain that the Buddha used this gesture in interceding between a conflict between two warring tribes. This mudra has a vaunted position in Laotian Buddhism and one specific image depicting a small standing gold Buddha in the double abhaya mudra is revered above all others in Laos. This image is called the “Pra (or Pha) Bang” Buddha and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD. It was given as a wedding gift by a Cambodian king to the Lanna king who married his daughter in the 14th century. The Pra Bang Buddha can still be seen in a special temple in the Laotian city that was named after it — Luang Prabang.

Buddha "Calling Rain" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Calling Rain” mudra – Ha Phreow

The other statue that caught my eye was one where the Buddha had his two arms stretched at his sides with his hands flexed downwards. This mudra is known as the “Calling Rain” posture, and, as its name suggests, its origin is tied to a story where the Buddha summoned the skies to rain during a time of draught. The third image I gravitated towards was of the Buddha with his hands crossed — not at his chest — but at his abdomen. When I saw this statue, I immediately thought back to the standing Buddha image I had seen a few years before at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. [See post “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR%5D.

Buddha "Sorrow of Others" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Sorrow of Others” mudra – Ha Phreow

In that particular Gal Vihara image, the Buddha is standing with his hands crossed at his chest, and the prevailing explanation for this mudra is that it is meant to capture the “Sorrow of Others”. But, at Ha Phreow, the statue I saw had the hands crossed at the Buddha’s stomach area. This had a peculiar effect because upon first glance it looks like the Buddha’s hands are cuffed or in chains. But, there are no chains or bindings of any type on this image. Instead, the image gives a feeling of “resignation” — meaning there is an acknowledgment that suffering in the world exists. Because of that feeling, there is thought by many scholars that this gesture of the Buddha’s hands crossed at his lower body is still a type of “contemplative mudra” similar to that of the statue at Gal Vihara. Both images reflect “sympathizing” with the suffering that is in the world and the plight of those afflicted by such suffering.

Aside from building Ha Phreow, King Setthathirath oversaw the construction of many other important temples in Vientiane — one of which was Wat Si Muang (1563). Wat Si Muang has 2 very intriguing aspects to it. First, unlike any other Buddhist temple that I have ever seen, there is a foundation pillar that sits in the main altar of the temple in an elevated position that is usually reserved for a central Buddha image or other Buddhist iconography.

Foundation Pillar - Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

Foundation Pillar – Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

The main altar room of Wat Si Muang is in the rear hall of the temple. A replica of the Emerald Buddha stands before the wall that separates the rear hall from a larger meeting area which is the front room of Wat Si Muang. As I passed  through the front room and my eyes locked on the Emerald Buddha in front of me, the importance of this image to the Laotian faithful became apparent. Although close to 250 years have passed since the Thai forcibly took the image out of Vientiane, the Lao people have not forgotten its importance. I saw photos and other renderings of the Emerald Buddha tacked in other temples and in stores around Vientiane — as if anticipating the return of the Emerald Buddha one day. I walked by the replica and passed through a doorway that led me to the rear hall of Wat Si Muang. This hall was much smaller and jam-packed with images. In front of the main altar was a black wooden stela image of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. This Buddha image was splattered with pieces of gold foil that had been pressed on it by pilgrims and those seeking blessings. Directly above this image on an elevated platform were other Buddha statues and in the middle of these statues was a gold-painted stone pillar which was draped in ceremonial cloth. This pillar is thought to date back to the initial founding of Vientiane itself and legend has it that at the time this pillar was lowered into the ground a pregnant Lao woman by the name of “Nang Si” was compelled to throw herself into the pit where she died.  After the temple was finished, a tradition began where pregnant Lao women came to the temple to ask for special blessings.

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

The second interesting aspect of Wat Si Muang is that it sits on a site that was formerly part of a Khmer temple or complex. Directly outside of Wat Si Muang’s rear hall are the remnants of crumbling black bricks which at one time may have been shaped in the form of a temple platform. This area has now been turned into a shrine and has various Buddha statues placed around it and the central portion of the ruins has a white cloth wrapped around it. Since the Khmer Empire at its height did stretch into Laos, it is not surprising that the Khmer likely did build temples around Vientiane. (In the lower half of Laos, there is “Wat Pho” which is a large Khmer ruin consisting of scattered buildings and other structures designed in a very similar style as those of the Khmer capital of Angkor.) So, Wat Si Muang may ultimately sit on the site of what was originally a 12th or 13th century Khmer temple and outpost. I am not sure how much archaeological study has taken place at the grounds of Wat Si Muang, but given the “monolith” like foundation pillar and the Khmer brick mound sitting in plain sight, it likely has lots of secrets under the surface which will probably never be unearthed.

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Another temple of interest in Vientiane is the Ong Teu Mahawihan (Temple of the Heavy Buddha). This temple has the distinction of containing the largest Buddha image in all of Vientiane. This image is made of bronze and some other lesser metals and is called the “Phra Ong Teu” Buddha. King Setthathirath built the temple housing the Phra Ong Teu image, and although the temple was destroyed by the Thai in the 1820s, the Buddha image itself survived. Phra Ong Teu sits on top of a high platform and is flanked by 2 standing Buddha images. I was lucky enough to see this Buddha image soon after the temple had been restored. The inside of the temple is incredibly colorful and the lighting used has a magical effect. I wish the same could be said of That Luang which at one time may have been the most impressive Stupa in all the Lanna Kingdom. That Luang was built by King Setthathirath in 1566 for the purpose of enshrining a bone relic of the Buddha. It has a round base that is very reminiscent of other Stupas in the Buddhist world– such as Sanchi in India, Bodhnath in Kathmandu, and certain Dagobas in Sri Lanka. But, its core rises up into a tight spire similar to Burmese-style Pagodas. Unfortunately, That Luang was completely demolished by the Thai. The French began their first attempt to rebuild it starting in the early 20th century, but this reconstruction stalled and limped along until it was finally finished some time in the 1950s. The French for some reason relied on sketches of That Luang made by a Frenchman in the 1860s– which was after That Luang had already been destroyed by the Thai. I have no idea why they would do that. I can only assume that in their colonial haste, the French just wanted to erect something in order to show their good intentions and didn’t want to fuss with the notion that a “Stupa” could be anything more than a physical monument.

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

When I first approached That Luang from its southern entrance, it appeared dazzling. It had a similar beacon-like quality as the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. However, as I got closer the stupa quickly lost its mystery. I could only see large chunks of cement coated in cheap yellow paint. It looked like an armory or missile depository. The outer walls of the stupa had more character than the Stupa itself.  I walked around the Stupa a few times — and absorbed its being from every angle and vantage point. It just did not create the feeling of reverence like other Stupas I had experienced. There was a feeling of stillborn glory and it seemed “forced”.  There were no streams of pilgrims or people circumambulating, praying, or leaving offerings within the shrine areas of the Stupa.

That Luang

That Luang

While perhaps the lack of religious practice at That Luang may be attributable to the Marxist leanings of Lao politics over the last few decades, I also think that it is difficult to breathe the mystical into modern concrete. Sadly, That Luang, Wat Si Muang, and virtually all other temples in Vientiane that King Setthathirath had constructed during his reign (the “golden age” of Laotian history) were destroyed by the Thai in the early 19th century.

Wat Si Saket (1818)

Wat Si Saket (1818)

The oldest surviving temple in Vientiane today is Wat Si Saket which was built in 1818 — over 250 years after King Setthathirath. It is not clear why the Thai spared this temple when they attacked Vientiane in the 1820s. Some historians think that because Wat Si Saket has elements of Thai design, it may have reminded the Thai of their own Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) in Bangkok [See post “Remains of the Wat-age” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6%5D. The Thai actually used the grounds of Wat Si Saket as their military compound and their soldiers slept and ate there while waging their siege on Vientiane.

Restored area of wall - Wat Si Saket

Restored area of wall – Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket is surrounded by a large square wall with a covered walkway. All along the inside of the wall are triangular alcoves which are filled with thousands of small seated Buddhas. This wall originally was painted with pastel colors of blue and pink and some small sections of the wall have been recently restored showing this vibrant coloring. The inside of Wat Si Saket is actually much smaller than what may think from viewing the exterior of the temple. No photographs are allowed inside the temple because of its delicate state. There are faded murals on its walls and a small altar sits at the back with an old wooden seated Buddha image. I was able to snap a photo of a small portion of one of the temple’s murals through a window while standing outside of the temple, but could not manage a photo of the old Buddha image which was shrouded in darkness from my standing point outside the temple.

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

The roof of Wat Si Saket has 5-tiers — each staggered broadly above the other.  Based on what I would see after traveling north to Luang Prabang, I was later able to understand the difference of the roof and overall design of Wat Si Saket as compared to the style of temples that King Setthathirath constructed in the 1500s. In those other temples, the roof is pancaked tight and soars nearly vertically into the sky. The middle sections of the roofs of those temples also have what look like large candelabras on them. These roof elements serve as symbolic representations of sacred Mt. Meru and contain 7 distinct spires — each symbolizing different stages towards enlightenment. The center section of the highest roof of Wat Si Saket only has a reliquary (or small vessel to carry a Buddhist relic or scripture) with 2 phoenix-like birds standing on either side. The reliquary design is very similar to classical Thai design and is almost basic when compared to the elaborate roof elements found on the temples of Luang Prabang.

Roof element - Wat Si Saket

Roof element – Wat Si Saket

My next stop was then Luang Prabang.  I was not planning on flying there from Vientiane. I wanted to take a bus, so that I could see the Laotian landscape. I had heard the drive to Luang Prabang would be slow and consist of grueling mountain stretches, but I was game. It couldn’t be worse than my “massage road” experience in Cambodia… I remember that exact thought as I took a swig from my bottle of Beerlao during my last night in Vientiane. I was watching the sun lower itself behind a bend of the Mekong River. A couple of fishermen were out on their long wooden boats and casting their nets. There was a live band in the restaurant that was singing John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me”.  Tears trickled down the bridge of my nose — not because of the sights or the song — but because I had ordered some insanely spicy Laotian beef dish. As I felt my lips blister, I took some strange enjoyment out of it. Little did I know how apt that feeling would be in describing my trip the next day.

 

Massage Road

29 Jul
Border crossing from Aryanthrapet, Thailand to Poitpet, Cambodia (2006)

Border crossing from Aranyaprathet, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia (2006)

A sense of unease marked my approach to Cambodia. My pre-trip research had revealed that while crossing into the Cambodian border town of Poipet from the Thai entry point of Aranyaprathet was no sweat, the trick would be getting from Poipet to Siem Reap – gateway to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. There were only 3 choices for available transport: (1) hitching a ride on a pickup truck; (2) hailing a taxi-like Toyota Camry, or (3) finding a bus. But, there were no reliable timetables for any of these options, so I had no idea what I would find once I got to Poipet. My preference was to go with #2 — the Toyota taxi. This option would cost more, but at least I would have some control over where it was going. The contrast between exiting Thailand and entering Cambodia was immediate. Thailand has an efficient infrastructure of roads and rail with a wide network of public transport running on fixed timetables. Cambodia was horribly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge for decades and is still trying to piece itself together. As I crossed over the border and entered Poipet, paved roads vanished and were subsumed by clay and rubble. I was told Poipet had a certain rhyme-like quality to it that brought to mind “toilet” and within a few strides into this desperate and grimy border town that was evident. But, I didn’t get much time to absorb the delights of Poipet because the skies quickly darkened and I was soon pelted by a hard beating rain. The clay under my feet transformed into a churning sludge and I ran fast to the first place I saw in the distance which had a roof. While waiting for the rain to stop, I met some other backpackers who were also headed to Siem Reap. They told me that they had a guide who had arranged for a bus to pick them up at 1pm. I was skeptical, but because I saw no sign of any other transportation and I thought the rain may have scared off other drivers, I decided to hang with them. I walked with the group over to a bus depot, and to my surprise, a vehicle entered and parked alongside us within a few minutes. However, it wasn’t a bus — mini-mini bus is more apt. How we fit 20 backpackers and 2 guides into that bus still boggles my mind (although years later I would be crammed into another mini-mini bus with 16 others for a 12hr journey in Laos that rivaled the drive to Siem Reap; to be described in an upcoming post).

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex - Angkor, Cambodia

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex – Angkor, Cambodia

It was 2006 when I travelled to Siem Reap and at that time the “road” from Poipet to Siem Reap consisted only of packed red clay with some iron panels laid flat in certain areas. Maybe the road has since been paved, but I experienced it at a time when it was called by locals as the “massage road” — a euphemism for the deep tissue pounding wrought on any individual who had the privilege to drive over it.  The numbing effects of the massage road took on further visceral meaning for me since I was lucky enough to be sitting on this mini-mini bus, which was packed to the gills with people, bags, and basically dragged its chassis on the ground during the entire time. I had studied a map and estimated that the journey would, at most, take 4 hours. Siem Reap was only around 165km away from Poipet.  But, the guides on the mini-mini bus had other ideas. The bus maintained a top speed of 30km/hr, which I could understand was necessary in spots where the road was filled with holes, trenches, or boulders, but the fact that we kept getting passed time and time again by other trucks and cars made me skeptical of what was really going on. We also stopped twice — once for a food & bathroom break — the second was by force when the bus suddenly veered off the road and pulled into a small village. The guides told us that the bus had a flat tire and so we had to get off the bus and wait until it was fixed. Everyone filed off the bus and I looked on incredulously as the bus then drove away with everyone’s bags still on board! The other backpackers were shaking their heads in disbelief and were all questioning the mysterious flat tire. It had been around 5 hours of torture so far. After about an hour of waiting around, the bus returned and the guides happily explained the tire had been fixed. The remaining hours of the trip unfurled in uncomfortable silence broken only by the occasional “ooouch” and “aaargh” of moaning coming from passengers who hit their heads on the roof of the bus or crushed one another when the bus hit another rock or went over hole. Nightfall had also cast us in an eerie blackness and there were no lights whatsoever along the way. So, a nervousness and fear of accident filled the bus. I was miserably cramped in my seat, stinking in my own sweat (no a/c on the bus), and had no feeling in my legs since my backpack rested on my knees and had cut off circulation. I had images dart in and out of my feverish mind: I saw myself skimming along the road on one of those Toyota Camry taxis, settling into my room Siem Reap, taking a shower, having a cold glass of water… My headed bobbed every now and then as fatigue forced me to shut my eyes, but then I would be violently jerked to a full state of alertness when the bus inevitably lurched in some direction.

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

After one particularly nasty jerk of the bus, my eyelids flew open and I saw a faint glow in the distance. These had to be coming from Siem Reap!! I would soon be getting off this bus! We got closer and closer, and then, inexplicably, we continued past the town and sank back into darkness. Some of the people in the front of the bus loudly asked the guides where we were going. One of the guides said that the bus was taking us to the station which was outside of town. But, when the bus finally stopped it was clear what had happened. The guides had hijacked us to some out-of-the way guesthouse. They dropped us off there and in a humdrum manner declared that this guesthouse had the best rates. They obviously would get a cut of all the room bookings from the owner of the guesthouse. I told them that I had reserved a room back in town, but they insisted my guesthouse was closed. At this point, my patience with the guides had run out and I just turned my back on them and walked away. Luckily, I found a tuk-tuk driver sitting outside the guesthouse. Two Japanese backpackers who had been on the bus with me walked over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had a place to stay in Siem Reap and was going there. They told me they also were staying in Siem Reap and asked whether they could ride into town with me. So, we struck an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to take the 3 of us to our respective lodgings in Siem Reap. When I arrived at my guesthouse (actually called Mom’s Guest House), the proprietor, Mrs. Kong, who was expecting me came out to greet me. The room I was staying in was $5 a night, but it was the best $5 I had ever spent by far in my life. It was 10pm, I had been on that bus for over 8 hours and was wiped out. My neck and shoulders were twisted up in knots and I was sore everywhere else. I had 3 days to immerse myself in Angkor, so I tried not to dwell on my maddening massage road ordeal. I thought only of the next day and the sights awaiting me.

Dancing Apsaras - Angkor

Dancing Apsaras

In the morning, I took a bike from Mrs. Kong and rode through the center of Siem Reap before I found my way to the entrance of Angkor — the last stretch of which passes by huge luxury hotels like Raffles and Le Meridien before the archaeological area begins. I purchased a 3-day pass (which requires a passport-sized photo for non-Cambodians) and spent the morning to dusk of each day exploring as much of the Khmer capital as I could. As described in a previous post (See “At The Dawn of Happiness” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Du), Angkor was founded as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century and was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which was originally meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. Buddhism was not adopted as the dominant religion of the Khmer Empire until King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the late 12th century. He ruled for 30 years (from 1181 to 1218AD) and is considered by most historians as the greatest Khmer King. He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism and one of his most important acts was to rededicate Angkor Wat as a Buddhist temple. He also actively expanded the city centre of the capital and constructed several new temples. Some of his most well-known additions to Angkor include Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon (Jayavarman’s face is built into the sides of many portions of this pyramid-like temple since he sought to depict himself as a bodhisattva of compassion), and Angkor Thom. Interestingly, within a few decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the practice of Mayahana Buddhism within the Khmer Empire was largely replaced by Theravada Buddhism. One of the reasons for this shift to Theravada practice is that King Jayavaraman VII had a son who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and became a monk in the Sinhalese Theravada tradition. When the son returned to Angkor, he espoused the Theravada teachings he had learned which quickly spread through the capital and throughout the Khmer Empire.

Silk Tree at Teah Prohm - Angkor

Silk Cotton Tree at Ta Prohm – Angkor

The Khmer Empire ultimately came to an end when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and conquered Angkor in the 15th century. Thereafter, the inhabitants of Angkor began to leave, the creeping jungle slowly swallowed it up, and it became lost for centuries. But, what was not lost was Theravada Buddhism which had taken root after King Jayavarman VII’s death and became further entrenched as a result of the conquering Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Cambodia notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge did their utmost to eradicate its practice. At the end of my first day at Angkor, I climbed up a hill called Phnom Bakheng which is located to the north of Angkor Wat. Many tourists and villagers go up to the top of this hill to watch the sunset and see how the fading sunlight changes the color of Angkor Wat which one can see below. From the hilltop, I was able to comprehend how enormous Angkor was and saw the boundaries and moats which the Khmer had so methodically engineered in order to protect and sustain its large population (ironically, one prevailing theory today as to why people ultimately abandoned the capital was that problems with proper irrigation for farming led to its collapse). I took several photos which captured the light dancing off Angkor Wat in all sorts of different shades. It was mesmerizing and I was rabid in anticipation of many more incredible scenes and photo ops that I would certainly experience over the next few days. Then, a funny thing happened. As I was pedaling on my bike and turning to exit the archaeological park which was closing, a small car with an attached food cart trailer came up on my left side. I tried to be sure that the car had a wide berth so it could pass me cleanly, but somehow my front wheel bumped a wheel on the trailer and I went flying over my handle bars. I don’t remember the pain of my fall. I only remember looking up and blinking at the face of someone staring down at me with concern. It was the driver of the car. He spoke a little English and asked me if I was OK. I stood up with a shakiness and tried to get my bearings. I saw the bent front frame of my bike a few meters away from me. I then looked down and saw my dented camera near my feet. I think somehow the impact of my fall was absorbed by my camera which I had strapped around my torso. I slowly wrapped my mind as to what had just happened and then I realized I was not seriously hurt. I exhaled in relief and looked at the man. I could only smile. He smiled back. I started to laugh and shake my head. I told him I was OK and shook his hand goodbye.

Female Monk - Angkor Wat

Female Monk – Angkor Wat

I was touched that he had stopped his car and come over to see if I was OK. He could have easily driven off, especially if he thought he had hit a tourist who was seriously injured. I picked up my camera and inspected it. It was dented, but the roll of film inside seemed unharmed and the camera appeared to still function. Little did I know that my camera was basically useless. Something inside the lens or shutter had cracked, and although I took over 12 rolls of film over the next few days, only a handful of the pictures were able to be developed. There you have it then — I had arrived via a ridiculously long and nerve-wracking journey and then found myself busted flat on the road during my first day at Angkor. I’m not sure I learned any lessons. I just picked myself off the ground, fixed the bent frame of my bike, and hopped back on. When it was time for me to leave and get back to Thailand, I did make sure to take one of those Toyotas back to the border. So, I guess that was a lesson learned — there was no way was I going to repeat the massage road experience. And you know how long the drive back to Poipet from Siem Reap took? 65 minutes.

Long Time No Monk Chat

22 Jun
Central altar in Wat

Central altar in Wat Phan Tao (1848) –  Chiang Mai, Thailand (2006)

I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Because I bought my ticket within an hour of the train’s departure from Bangkok, all the sleeper cabins in the train were occupied. I took a seat in the 2nd class cabin which was very nice, except that the seats had limited recline and this would be an 11-hour train ride with stops along the way. When the train pulled into the Chiang Mai train station at around 10am, my first task was to find a place to crash for the next 3 days. I had not reserved a room anywhere, but knew that Chiang Mai would have no shortage of hostels, guest-houses, and hotels available for roving chaps like myself. I stumbled along the city centre area until I found a decent-looking guest-house with a room available. I fell asleep immediately as I flopped on the bed. Chiang Mai sits at an altitude of about 310m (1,000+ ft) and is cradled by the serenity of green hills and mountains. So, the air has a coolness to it — free of the stifling heat and humid canopy of Bangkok.  Although it is the second most populated city in Thailand, it does not project the incessant push and pull crammed sprawl of a big city. It is like a pocket of tranquility — filled with evening mist, forested enclaves, and a laid back attitude. When I woke up in the early afternoon after my short snooze on that first day, I looked out of the window of my room and instantly tuned into Chiang Mai. I understood the vibe. I actually felt relieved to be out of Bangkok and was ready to just get on a bicycle and roll around with no agenda.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296AD and was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for nearly 500 years. During that period, it was the main rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south.  The bulk of the many Wats in Chiang Mai contain golden Chedis designed in the Lanna-style — like narrow golden bells.  The influence of the next door Burmese can also be found in many Chedis in the city which have square bases. Each Wat in Chiang Mai consists of 3 elements: 1) the “viharn” which is usually a spacious roofed area which serves as the assembly / meeting area for monks; 2) the Chedi or Stupa which typically enshrines some important historical or body relic; and 3) the Buddha statues or images within the main chamber room of the Wat. As I biked around the city, my eyes became fixed on a white dot nestled between some green hills in the distance. This was Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep or “Doi Suthep” as it was called. Legend has it that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a vision in which he was compelled to dig at a site somewhere in Thailand. He unearthed a shoulder bone fragment at that site and believed it to belong to the Buddha. He took the relic to the king of Sukhothai who attempted to verify the authenticity of the relic by conducting a ritual to showcase its miraculous properties. But, when the relic did not exhibit any kind of special or supernatural power, the Sukhothai king gave the relic back to the monk. However, the story of this relic had traveled north to Chiang Mai which at the time was ruled by King Nu Naone. King Naone was very interested in the monk’s story and summoned the monk before him.  When the relic was showed to the King, it split into two pieces. King Naone placed one of the pieces on the back of a white elephant which took off towards the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. The elephant walked mid-way up one of the mountains, trumpeted 3 times, and then laid down and died.  The King took this as a sign that a temple was to be built on that site and the first Chedi was built there in 1383. Through the passing centuries, a large platform with multiple Chedis and a statue of the white elephant were constructed at Doi Suthep. I visited Doi Suthep on my second day in Chiang Mai and walked up a huge staircase framed with Nagas (Hindu serpent deities) which led up to the hill-site of Doi Suthep. The views of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep were incredible.

Rod iron Buddha Image window from Inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

Wrought iron window of Buddha image from inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

The other piece of bone that came into being after the relic had split in front of the King was interred within one of the Chedis af Wat Suan Dok (Flower Garden Temple) which is one of Chiang Mai’s oldest surviving temples. It dates back to 1373 and the temple is also the site of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University — an important Theravada Buddhist school where monks from all over Southeast Asia come to study. Wat Suan Dok has a program in conjunction with the university where monks meet foreigners interested in Buddhism. This program is called “Monk Chat” and I was hoping to make it to one of these sessions while I was in Chiang Mai. I headed west on my bike and because I wasn’t paying attention, I over-shot Wat Suan Dok. By the time I figured out that I had gone too far, I was in a very leafy area filled with tall trees. I decided to make a left turn onto one of the quiet side streets shooting away from the main road and to my delight I came to Wat U Mong. Wat U Mong is an idyllic forest monastery filled with meditation tunnels and stone Chedis. Wooden signs with sayings of the Buddha are tacked on hundreds of trees throughout the monastery grounds. I had arrived here completely by accident. I hopped off my bike and wandered.

Meditation tunnels - Wat U Mong

Meditation tunnels – Wat U Mong

I ducked into the meditation tunnels and sat on the cool tiled floor. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to focus my thoughts inward while inside the tunnel. I had not planned on trying to meditate — it just naturally happened. The tunnel was like a big neural pathway to facilitating meditation. A portal. The monks who had dug these caves really knew what they were doing!  I had one deeply meaningful and personal reflection which hit me like a lighting bolt while I was in the tunnel. I still remember it now — 8 years later as I type this. It is not something that I would share as part of this blog – but I do believe the realization I was able to attain in that tunnel at Wat U Mong was something that probably would not have come to me during the usual pace and activity of my life.  When I emerged out of the tunnel, I walked up to a clearing on a small mound and there before me was one of the most horrifying Buddha images that I had ever seen. This image was obsidian black — a blackness that accentuated the gauntness of the Buddha’s face, the jutted implosion of his ribcage, and the disintegration of his arms and legs.  I adjusted slowly to this Buddha which was strikingly incongruent to the usual brightly gilded and beautiful Buddha images I had seen in Thailand and throughout Asia.

Fasting Buddha - Wat U Mong

Fasting Buddha – Wat U Mong

This was the “Fasting Buddha” — a stark depiction of the Buddha when he hit a near dead-end in his quest for enlightenment. At that point in his life, he was following the ways of the strict ascetics of his time who believed that self-denial and deprivation were the proper spiritual paths toward attaining supreme knowledge [See post: “Wilderness” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-2n%5D. I began to understand why this image looked like some alien creature with little trace of any humanness — it was meant to serve as a reminder that even the Buddha had previously failed on his journey towards enlightenment and this failure took him to the brink of death.

Administrative Office / Monk Chat - Wat Suan Dok

Administrative Office / Monk Chat – Wat Suan Dok

As the afternoon was turning into night, I got back on my bike and double backed towards Wat Suan Dok. I had a funny feeling that the Monk Chat program would be closed because it was after 5pm. I pedaled as fast as I could. Within a few meters of my entrance to the temple grounds, I saw a modern-looking administrative building which I thought may be connected with the program. I was right. I entered the room and it appeared the place was closed. Sure enough, I saw a sign stating that the hours for Monk Chat were 9:30am to 5pm. It was now 5:35pm. My shoulders slumped and I turned away. As I was walking out, a voice called out to me. I looked back and there were 3 smiling monks before me. I went to greet them and they told me they were novice monks from Cambodia who were students at the university there.  They said that the official Monk Chat program for the day had finished, but wanted to know if I was interested in talking with them anyway since they wanted to practice their English. I excitedly agreed and sat down with them in a small room.  Since I was fresh off my experience in the meditation tunnels of Wat U Mong, I told the monks about it. I tried to explain how unbelievable it was to journey so nakedly inward in a flash of moment and come to an important realization that would otherwise elude one given the bombardment of distraction in everyday life.

Eson and friends

Eson (middle) and friends

One of the monks seemed very interested in the experience. His name was Eson and we shared some personal histories with one another for nearly an hour. When the monks had to finally get up and leave, Eson and I exchanged email addresses and for 3-years afterwards we continued to correspond with one another. In his last email to me, he told me that he had to leave the Sangha (the monkhood) in order to go back to Cambodia and help his family with their financial situation. He was going to become a taxi driver in Phnom Penh. I’m sad to say that we lost touch after that. He was probably around 20 to 22 years old when we met that day at Wat Suan Dok. He said something to me then which sounded funny and simple at the time, but has grown in its meaning to me over the years. He said people have “monkey mind” — meaning their thoughts, acts, behaviors, and wants dart like a monkey jumping from branch to branch of a tree. It is not in our nature to stand still and to focus in order to truly have intent behind any act of our mind, speech, or bodies. When one learns to quiet the mind, body, and speech in order to act with purpose, then that’s how spiritual growth takes root. But, that’s a skill one must learn and practice with tenacity over time. It is not easy. We are also all susceptible to outside forces that knock us off the branch — a branch we think we have under our control. I think back to the smile on Eson’s face when we said good-bye and then I envision him behind the wheel of his cab, navigating traffic as he adroitly drives a passenger to where they need to go. There’s a symmetry in that scene and my chat with him. I like that.

Remains of The Wat-age

26 Apr
The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho -  Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

“Bangkok” is not the actual name of the city. The name kicks off with “Krung Thep” (which means something like “village of wild plums”) and consists of several adulatory words strung together and pronounced in rapid fire Thai which describe the city’s key hallmarks — one of which (not surprisingly) is that this is the place where the Emerald Buddha resides. Another part of the name is the call out that unlike Ayutthaya — this city is “impregnable”. Just like its verbose sprawl of a name, Bangkok is a free-wheeling, international mecca attracting all sorts of colorful characters. On the surface, a visitor to the city is bombarded with rush-hour traffic along with the incessant commercialism and hedonistic glitter of a behemoth capital of the tropics, but if one takes the time to go behind this facade, the steady pulse of Theravada Buddhism can easily be experienced in the countless temples (wats), shrines, monasteries, and other grounds of contemplation not yet swallowed up by rampant urbanism.

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Head of Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

I start first with Wat Pho which is a restored temple built over the grounds of what was likely the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The Wat Pho complex is adjacent to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The current temple design of Wat Pho was created in the early 1800s by King Rama III and houses a 43m (141ft) long Buddha in the lion/reclining pose. This Buddha is tightly squeezed within the temple and has the facial and body characteristics found in the  classical style of the Sukhothai period. The Buddha is made of a brick core and a plaster exterior that has been covered and smooth over with gold foil. Its face bears a slight smile — reminiscent of the smile of the stone Reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka (see “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR).  While not as long as the reclining Buddhas I’ve seen in Burma (i.e., the Shewethalyaung Buddha in Bago, Burma built in 994AD and 55m long — see “The Python Who Was Once A Monk” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-wW; or the 65m long Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Rangoon — see “William of Yangon” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-s1), the feet of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho contain a unique artistic flourish.

Mother-of-Pearl feet

Mother-of-Pearl feet

The statue’s feet are 3m high and 4.5m long and the bottom of each foot has been meticulously inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These mother-of-pearl soles have then been carved and divided into 108 rectangular tiles which depict specific Buddhist iconography and symbols — such as cranes, tigers, elephants, lotus blossoms, and altars. Within the center of each foot is a dense circular flower petal design which invokes the wheel of the Dharma. Behind the statue, the 108 panels of each foot are echoed in the form of 108 bronze prayer bowls placed in a row where coins may be donated by visitors.

The central prang of Wat Arun

The central prang of Wat Arun

Across the Chao Phraya River from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace complex is one of Bangkok’s best known sites — Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). This temple is lit up each night and sits on a site that dates back to the 17th century. When the Emerald Buddha was carried away from Laos and brought to Thailand, it was first placed by King Rama I at Wat Arun until Wat Phra Keo was constructed. Wat Arun has a steeply terraced middle tower (called a “prang”) that is influenced by Khmer design. The ashes of King Rama II are enshrined within the grounds of Wat Arun since he is credited with restoring the temple during his reign. Traces of the origin story of the Emerald Buddha (see previous post: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ) are found in the history of another important religious piece in Bangkok — the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit.

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The temple of Wat Traimit contains what is to believed to be the world’s largest solid gold statue: a 5.5 ton/5500kg Golden Buddha in the “vanquishing of Mara” pose. This Buddha is about 3m tall and gold to its core — unlike other “gold” Buddhas which are actually brick or stucco-based with gold-foiled exteriors. But, for over 200 years this statue sat in Wat Traimit in obscurity. It was believed to be one of the remaining intact stone Buddha images that were transported to Bangkok from the ruins of Ayutthaya and nothing more. No one suspected anything about the statue’s true nature until the 1950s when the statue fell during an attempt to move it. At first the workers assigned to moving the statue thought they had broken the statue because of the big crack that appeared. But, as they took a closer look at the cracked statue, they saw something flickering back at them. They chipped away the plaster coating and the gold Buddha emerged. It was thought that the monks at Ayutthaya had purposely tried to hide this priceless image from the invading Burmese by disguising it under a coating that would make it look like the other stone Buddha images of the old capital. When I visited Wat Traimit, the temple was in a state of disrepair and the Golden Buddha sat on a simple platform under a flat roof with little else. In 2010, the Thai government in conjunction with the Thai Sangha finished construction of a large new temple where the Golden Buddha was then placed. This new temple also has a museum section devoted to the history of the Golden Buddha.

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

Tucked off a small avenue near the busy King Rama VIII Rd in the northern district of Bangkok is another temple of note — Wat Intharawihan. At this Wat, there is a tall Standing Buddha (32m high and 10m wide) which dates back to the Ayutthaya period (17th century). This Standing Buddha has a particularly striking face with a large triangular nose. This face made such a lasting imprint in my mind that 2 years later when I was in Singapore I saw its doppleganger at the Temple of 1,000 Lights. This temple in Singapore was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m height/300 tonnes) seated Buddha known as the “Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya”.

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights - Singapore (2008)

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore (2008)

When I learned that the person who had commissioned the construction of this temple and Buddha was Thai, I was convinced that this person had to have been influenced by the face of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built many 3 centuries apart.

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount – Bangkok

Phu Khao Thong or the Golden Mount is a man-made hill that is found in the center of Bangkok. On top is Wat Saket — a chedi with gold foil applied to its exterior. Inside this chedi is a relic of the Buddha that was brought from Sri Lanka. The hill itself is actually the remains of an enormous brick chedi that was in the process of being constructed, but due to poor design and engineering this structure collapsed. During the passing centuries, the bricks eroded and the onslaught of rain and mud resulted in the formation of a big lump. King Rama V then oversaw the conversion of this lump into a hill with trees,vegetation, and a series of steps and pathways were built in order to lead people to the top where Wat Saket pierced the sky.

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

In the late 19th century, King Rama V finished building another temple in Bangkok — Wat Benchamabophit (or the Marble Temple). This tranquil and impeccably designed temple has an air of modernism about it — although it is now over a 100 years old. Inside the main temple hall is an exquisite Buddha image that was cast in 1920.  I happened to visit the Marble Temple after the tail-end of a heavy, but short rainstorm. From the moment I entered the temple grounds, all the chaos and blight of the Bangkok summer felt wiped away as if hit by a flash flood.

The Lotus Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The Seated Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The masonry and the lines of this temple are immaculate. The Buddha within its core sits serenely before a canvas of sea-blue. I felt cleansed — and it wasn’t because of the rain. It was because I had been quickly absorbed into the quiet bosom of this sacred space. I can remember singing along to “One Night In Bangkok” when it first came out in the 80s. I never really paid attention to the lyrics until the time of my first trip to the city. There’s a line in the chorus of the song that says “you’ll find a god in every golden cloister.”  No doubt this line may have various interpretations. But, it takes on a literal meaning when you do actually explore the side-streets (or “soi”) of this city because there is usually some golden image there to greet you. Some like the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit are on celebratory display. Others may be hidden beneath plaster coatings, but maybe — if one goes beyond the cacophony of Khao San Road, the sleek din of Sukhumvit, and the carny pleasure of Patpong — these still await discovery.

The Jewel of the Chao Phraya

17 Mar
View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)


It’s rare to be able to identify the spiritual heart and soul of a nation within 1 religious work of art.  Yet, that’s what the Emerald Buddha represents to Thailand. While this Buddha image is not actually made of emerald (likely chiseled from a jadeite, nephrite or jasper stone) and is small in height (the statue itself is about 48cm or less than 2ft tall ), it has played a significant role in the legitimacy of the current Chakri dynasty and as an augur for the prosperity of the Thai people. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend holds that it was cast first in India about 500 years after the Buddha died under the direction of a prominent Brahmin turned Buddhist sage known as Nagasena who lived in Patna — not from Kushinagar where the Buddha had died. Due to invasions and battles in the area, the Emerald Buddha was transported further and further south and ultimately came to Sri Lanka.  It stayed there for centuries until one of the Burmese Kings of Bagan struck a deal with a Sinhalese King to have the Emerald Buddha shipped to Bagan which was at the time the center for Buddhist religious teaching and study.

Guardian Deity - outside Wat Phra Keow - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

Guardian Demon – Wat Phra Keo

The Emerald Buddha never made it to Burma. Instead, a storm hit the ship carrying the statue out of Sri Lanka and the ship was blown off course. Somehow, the Emerald Buddha found its way to Cambodia where it was taken to Angkor. Then, when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, one of the spoils looted from the great Khmer capital was the Emerald Buddha. However, other evidence has been discovered by Thai historians suggesting that the Emerald Buddha first appeared in Chiang Rai in the 1430s. At that time, Chiang Rai was part of the Lanna Kingdom which occupied a big chunk of what is today northern Thailand and in the 15th century was a rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the south.  These historians point to records which speak of a large stupa in Chiang Rai toppling after being struck by lighting in 1434.  A monk who then combed through the debris of this stupa found a small stone figure of the Buddha. He placed this figure in the prayer hall of his monastery. Some time later, another monk happened to notice a small chip in the torso of this Buddha statue and upon further examination realized that the statue was actually coated by some kind of plaster or lacquer. He removed the coating and there beneath was the beautiful dark green crystal of the Emerald Buddha. So, the Angkor and Chiang Rai origination stories are problematic because how could the Emerald Buddha be in 2 places at the same time? Regardless of how the Emerald Buddha made its way to Thailand, the timeline as to what happened after the Emerald Buddha arrived/appeared is much better documented.

Ha Phreo - Vientiane, Laos (2013)

Ha Phreow – Vientiane, Laos (2013)

At some point around 1450AD, the Emerald Buddha was moved from Chiang Rai (or taken from Ayutthaya depending on which origination story one follows) to Chiang Mai where it stayed until 1551. Chiang Mai was the most important region of the Lanna Kingdom and it was governed by Chao Chaiyasetthathirat who was the son of the Lanna King, Phra Chao Phothisan. King Phothisan resided in Luang Prabang — a city farther north from Chiang Mai in what is today Laos. When King Photisan died, Chaiyasetthathirat had to leave Chiang Mai in order to make the arduous journey to attend his father’s funeral in Luang Prabang. Because he feared a coup or foreign invasion in Chiang Mai while he was gone, he decided to take the Emerald Buddha with him to Luang Prabang. Sure enough, within some days after he left, Burmese forces invaded north Thailand and pushed Chaiyasetthathirat’s armies across the Mekong River where they became cut off from Thailand. Chaiyasetthathirat had to stay in Luang Prabang which became his new capital and many spectacular Buddhist temples with exteriors and interiors painted with unique stencil-like design and patterns were built. However, Chaiyasetthathirat worried about being stuck in Luang Prabang and isolated from the rest of his kingdom, so he decided to move his capital south to Vientiane in the 1560s. Again, he took the Emerald Buddha with him. A gorgeous temple was built in Vientiane for the Emerald Buddha called Ha Phreow. The Emerald Buddha would reside in Ha Phreow for the next two hundred and fifteen years until 1778. Ha Phreow would ultimately be destroyed by Thai forces and rebuilt by the French in 1920s based on old descriptions and sketches of what the temple looked like in the 1560s. In 1778, a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken south to Thonburi which was where the Thai King, Taksin, resided. Taksin first placed the Emerald Buddha in a building near the site of Wat Arun. After Taksin’s death, Chao Phra Chakri ascended to the throne and crowned himself Rama I. He moved the site of the Thai capital across the Chao Phraya river to its present location in Bangkok. More importantly, Rama I constructed a temple for the specific purpose of housing the Emerald Buddha. In 1789, this temple which was called Wat Phra Keo (or the “Residence of the Holy Jewel Buddha”) was constructed within the Grand Palace complex where Rama I himself lived. The Emerald Buddha has sat atop a gold and diamond-studded pedestal inside Wat Phra Keo ever since.

Wat Phra Keow

Wat Phra Keo – exterior

Today, the Grand Palace is a big tourist draw and anyone can enter Wat Phra Keo in order to glimpse the Emerald Buddha — although no photos are allowed.  No monks live inside Wat Phra Keo either. At the start of each season (winter, monsoon, and summer) of the Thai year, the current Thai King (King Bhumibol or King Rama IX) performs a ritual that dates back to Rama I. The King will climb up a ladder positioned behind the Emerald Buddha and clean the statue with a cloth. Then, the King will change the attire of the Emerald Buddha based on which season is starting. The Emerald Buddha has 3 different golden garments that reflect each of the 3 seasons. For the winter season, the Emerald Buddha wears a golden frock that covers its entire torso.

Phra Si Ratana

Phra Si Ratana Chedi

There are many things to see in the Grand Palace complex.  The palace itself is a bold, ambitious building – a testament to King Rama I and his vision of a unified Thailand led by a new dynasty sanctioned by the presence of the Emerald Buddha. Within its inner compound where Wat Phra Keo is found, there are a number of stupas, statues, platforms, and other buildings. One interesting structure of note is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi which is a gold stupa built in the 19th century. It is thought to enshrine ashes of the Buddha that were transported to Thailand from Sri Lanka.  Another structure called Phra Mondop has ornate doors and columns. It is referred to as “the library” because it contains old texts of the Tripitaka – one of the earliest canons of the Buddha’s teachings translated from the Pali language. As one passes through this densely packed area, Wat Phra Keo suddenly appears. It is a standalone building and is the clear focal point of the complex. For most Thais, it is the most important and beautiful temple in Thailand. The outside of the building is meticulously bejeweled and glittering. Each side of the temple has its own “gate” of entry that is designated by a special statue or other unique element.

The Laughing Hermit - outside Wat Phra Keow

The Laughing Hermit

On the Western side of the temple, I was startled to see what looked like some jester or clown statue. This bronze statue was almost black in color and was unlike any other statue I had seen in any Buddhist temple grounds before. I was at the entry point of Wat Phra Keo called the “hermit gate” and this strange figure before me was the “laughing hermit” — a Thai saint believed to have healing powers.  I saw a few people stop by this image in order to make offerings in the form of flowers, fruit, and candles.  From here, I walked up a some steps and I entered Wat Phra Keo. Since it was early July, the King had just changed the Emerald Buddha’s garments to reflect the start of the start of the rainy season, so a gold sash covered the statue’s torso.

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha is illuminated ever so slightly in an otherwise dark room. The effect is that the image appears to float.  Although the image looks like other seated images of the Buddha, many Thai believe the Emerald Buddha is  endowed with special powers such as the ability to perform miracles.  For the first century or so after it was housed in Wat Phra Keo, the Emerald Buddha was actually held aloft and walked by monks through the streets of Bangkok after the outbreaks of diseases, natural disasters, or other bad fortune had hit the people.  The effect of this magical looking green Buddha being carried through Bangkok neighborhoods cannot be overstated. People were cured of ailments and sickness, the waters of the Chao Phraya River quickly receded after large storms had brought floods and destroyed crops, and there was a reinforcement of the harmony between the Chakri King, the Sangha, and the citizenry. The most practical importance of the Emerald Buddha is its connection with the Chakri dynasty — which is nearly 250 years old and is the longest reign of any dynasty in Thailand’s history. This dynasty began with Chao Phra Chakri’s capture of the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane — although he did not become King Rama I until a year later. He built Wat Phra Keo and used the Emerald Buddha as a religio-political tool in order to sanction his rule and that of his heirs.  Even though King Rama IX is a “king only in title” today, he is highly esteemed by the people– almost on par as a religious leader. He is beseeched by his subjects to intervene from time to time in the many deadlocks, coups, and corruption that have plagued the Thai government through the years. He appears to have scaled back such interventions as of late, but it is highly doubtful that he will ever abdicate or give up his role as the primary caretaker of the Emerald Buddha. One of the most widely held beliefs in Thailand is that on the day the Emerald Buddha is taken out of Bangkok, the Chakri dynasty will end. Given the roving nature of the Emerald Buddha over the last millennia, I can’t help but think that there may not be a King Rama X.

At the Dawn of Happiness

27 Feb
Detail of temple exterior - Sukhothai, Thailand (2006)

Detail of temple exterior – Sukhothai, Thailand (2006)

East of Burma, lays the core of Buddhist Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. South of Southeast Asia itself, frenetic socio-economic activity and religious contrast blurs by as Thailand cedes to Malaysia, then Singapore, and across the Strait of Malacca is Indonesia. I pick up then from Thailand. But, I must first lead with a basic overview of the Khmer Empire.  This was an empire that covered most of what is today Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and south Vietnam. The beginnings of the Khmer Empire can be traced to 802AD with the founding of the empire’s capital in Angkor which was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which today is one of the most visited sites in Southeast Asia. But, what most of the tourist package groups who fly into Siem Reap, Cambodia for day trips to the temple complex may not realize is that the lofty chambers of Angkor Wat were meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. It was not meant to be a Buddhist temple or shrine.

Wat Traphang Ngoen

Wat Traphang Ngoen

The Khmer people did not absorb Buddhism until a few centuries after Angkor Wat was built and the reason for their capitulation to Buddhism was in part due to the rise of the Thai people in the north and western frontiers of the Khmer Empire. The main Khmer outpost in Thailand up until the early 13th century was in Sukhothai which is about 450km (280 miles) north of Bangkok today.  A large group of Thai tribes and clans got together and drove out the Khmer forces from Sukhothai and established what was to be the first independent Thai kingdom in 1238AD.  One of the sons of the first king of Sukhothai became King Ramkhamhaeng and he ruled Sukhothai for over 40 years. His reign is referred to by Thai historians as a “golden age”. He created the forerunner of what is the modern Thai alphabet in 1283AD by adapting Khmer letters into a form that suited Thai speech, and extended Sukhothai north into Laos and south into the Malay peninsula. Religious art flourished under him in what is viewed now as classical Thai forms.

Wat Sa Si - Sukhothai

Wat Sa Si – Sukhothai

Wat Chana Songkhram

Wat Chana Songkhram

Prior to the advent of Buddhism, most Thais had a religious practice that consisted of a mix of animism and shamanism. Starting in the 11th century, Theravada Buddhism trickled into Thailand from Burma. Sukhothai’s first king, Indraditya (Ramkhamhaeng’s father), made it the state religion in an attempt to unify the Thai people. While it is acknowledged that the Buddha images and temples of Sukhothai were influenced by Burma’s Mon people, during Ramkhamhaeng’s rule the Thai did develop their own unique “chedi” (Thai word for stupa) design – a lotus bud spire. King Ramkhamhaeng also supported the growth of the Sangha — the monkhood in Sukhothai. He did this through inviting ordained monks from Sri Lanka (where Theravada Buddhism already had over a millenia’s worth of history) to Sukhothai so that they would conduct Buddhist teachings there and promote the monastic life. The first stupa constructed at Sukhothai was Wat Maha That (or the royal sanctuary). This stupa rose in a lotus-bud design and within it was enshrined a relic of the Buddha. It is the largest temple at Sukhothai. Most of the buildings in the Sukhothai were built with bricks and contained stucco exteriors. The interiors of many these buildings were painted with murals of the Buddha’s life and featured large bronze castings and stone carvings of the Buddha in various positions — seated,  standing, walking with elongated hands, and bearing a flame-like crown on his head.

Wat Maha That - Sukhothai

Wat Maha That – Sukhothai

Bicycling through the archaeological zone of Sukhothai, I started with Wat Maha That and continued to Wat Si Sawai (known for its Khmer-style tower), Wat Traphang Ngoen (contains faded, standing Buddhas in 4 niches), Wat Chana Songkram (has Sri Lankan-style dagoba design), Wat Phra Phai Luang (remnants of monastery), and Wat Saphan Tin (12.5m tall standing Buddha situated on 200m high hill that overlooks Sukhothai).

Wat Si Chum

Wat Si Chum

I found the most spectacular sight at Sukhothai to be Wat Si Chum —  a “mondop” containing a large sitting Buddha called “Phra Achana”.  The mondop itself is a 15m tall and 32m wide square structure and Phra Achana measures 11m in width from knee to knee. Devotees place gold foil on the right hand of this great Buddha who sits in the “vanquishing of Mara / the earth stands witness” pose (See post “Tempt” at http://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The words Phra Achana in Thai mean “one who is not frightened” and there are tunnels that run inside the walls of Wat Si Chum where these words are carved along with images and stories of the Buddha’s life. These tunnels are now closed to visitors. Wat Si Chum is a significant religious monument because its Thai builders consciously designed it to mark a break from the other “mandapas” which existed in India and elsewhere in the Khmer Empire at the time it was built.

File created with CoreGraphicsIn those other structures, the shrine or chamber room that was set aside for special ceremonial purposes was built within a larger temple or building. Wat Si Chum is not annexed to a larger religious structure, and instead, is an independent building that serves as its own stand-alone shrine. It allows for a very powerful, yet intimate experience within a uniform space that’s filled only with Phra Achana and the individual. When I entered, I felt boxed in as if in a confessional — as if I had come before Phra Achana to confess to my transgressions. One Thai legend even speaks of an invading Mon force who fled Sukhothai in fear when they peered inside Wat Si Chum and saw the disapproving, lowered eyes of Phra Achana staring back at them. Another interesting achievement of King Ramkhamhaeng was that he traveled to China’s Yunnan region on at least 2 separate occasions. He encouraged trade between his Thai people and the Chinese there, and through his efforts he sparked the Thai production of ceramic ware based on Chinese methods.

Phra Achana inside Wat Si Chum

Phra Achana inside Wat Si Chum

This savvy in being able to broker relations with larger countries is an important hallmark of Thai kings — one that paid off in a big way in the 19th and 20th century when Thailand ultimately emerged as the only nation in Southeast Asia not to fall under the imperial thumb of any of the Western powers that had occupied nearly everywhere else in the region. Through the wily maneuvering of the kings of the current Chakri dynasty, Thailand brokered its way through French, English, and American domination in Indochina.  Sukhothai would ultimately fall within 2 centuries after its founding and become a vassal state of its more powerful southern neighbor, Ayutthaya. The Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, which signaled the end of the Khmer Empire.  The creeping jungle swallowed up Angkor and Sukhothai and both were lost for centuries.

Wat Saphan Hin

Wat Saphan Hin

Near where the royal palace once stood in the center of Sukhothai, a stone marker bearing an inscription was found. This inscription was translated and states in part:

“This realm of Sukhothai is good. In the water there are fish; in the field there is rice. The ruler does not levy a tax on the people who travel along the road together, leading their oxen on the way to trade and riding their horses on the way to sell. Whoever wants to trade in elephants, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in horses, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in silver and gold, so trades.”

An enlightened message from the 13th century.

Dynasty Lost (and Found again)

25 Jan

On my last day in Yangon, I went back to the Schwedagon Pagoda and sat in contemplation of all the history it has stood witness to one last time. I then gathered myself and wheeled around exiting from its South Entrance. I headed down the hill and followed some general directions I had found on the internet that would lead me to the site I was looking for: the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

The Red Fort - Delhi, India (2009)

The Red Fort – Delhi, India (2009)

I had learned about Bahadur Shah a few years earlier during a trip to India. It was a story that gripped me– this was the 17th Emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. The end of the line of 3 centuries of a Dynasty that had begun with Babur the Great who was a descendant of Tamerlane and claimed ancestry with Genghis Khan. The dynastic lineage he spawned would include Humayon, Akbar the Great, and Shah Jahan — who built the Taj Mahal. Babur was laid to rest in what today is Kabul in Afghanistan. Nearly all the other Mughal kings were buried in magnificent mausoleums sprinkled around Delhi, Agra, Fatehpour Sikri, and other areas of North India. Yet, the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, had died in 1862 in Rangoon and was virtually forgotten until 1991. The British had removed him from his palace in the Red Fort in Delhi because of his part in the Indian rebellion or “mutiny” of 1857. At the time, the British East India Company had already begun what was to be their long-term occupation of India which initially began as a trading outpost and then morphed into a military colonizing force stretching from Calcutta down to Madras, across to Bombay, and up to Delhi. A band of Indians who could see the handwriting on the wall if these British forces continued their entrenchment in the region attempted to overthrow the British provisional government and troops who were in Delhi. The leaders of this group approached and enlisted the help of Bahadur Shah and although he had extremely diminished power and extended little influence outside of the walls of the Red Fort, he still wielded a symbolic appeal that could be used to rally the people under the banner of getting rid of a foreign occupier. The results of the uprising were catastrophic. The British crushed the rebellion and killed two of Bahadur Shah’s sons who had participated in the skirmishes. The British general presented Bahadur Shah with each of his son’s heads afterwards. After a 40-day trial in which the British “proved” Bahadur Shah’s role in the mutiny, he was convicted of various conspiratorial charges and treason and sentenced to exile in Rangoon where the British had set up another outpost. In 1858, Bahadur Shah and his wife marched with what was left of the royal court east from Delhi to Rangoon.

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah's tomb

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah’s tomb

He died in Rangoon 4 years later at the age of 87. He was buried on the same day of his death by the British. His grave was lost until 1991 when during excavation of a road just below the Schwedagon, Burmese construction workers hit a brick-lined structure that upon further investigation turned out to hold Bahadur Shah’s coffin. They also found a stone marker written in English, Urdu, and Burmese that made reference to the “Ex-King of Delhi” being buried near this spot. In his years of exile, Bahadur Shah wrote poetry, created beautiful calligraphy, translated Sufi texts, and reflected on his long life. He was acutely aware of what it would mean to die in exile as the last Mughal Emperor. In one of his final poems, he wrote the following (as has been translated into English), “Poor Zafar! Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved”.

Mausoleum of Humayon - Delhi, India

Mausoleum of Humayon – Delhi, India

While his ancestors such as Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, and others are still remembered and their mortal remains lay in some of the most incredible monuments ever built, Bahadur Shah was hastily buried in a shallow grave in a foreign land. The pages of history quickly swept by him. His descendants would fade into obscurity [a news article some years ago wrote of the existence of some of his descendants who are now apparently paupers in Kolkata – begging for money in train stations]. Yet, something interesting happened after Bahadur Shah’s grave was rediscovered in Yangon.

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan's Mausoleum) - Agra, India

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan’s Mausoleum) – Agra, India

The Indian government assisted the Burmese in creating a shrine for the king, and this compound also includes the tombs of his wife and daughter whose graves were found nearby. As renewed interest in Bahadur Shah and his life caught on, people began to pay attention to his writings and commentaries were published about his poems, his translations of important Sufi texts, and other works.

Mausoleum of Akbar - Fatehpour Sikri, India

Mausoleum of Akbar – Fatehpour Sikri, India

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II – Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) (2011)

When I arrived at his shrine, I was amazed by how many people were there. I thought maybe there would be just a few caretakers and I would be the only visitor. But, there were many people of all ages streaming in and out of the shrine. Some were having picnic lunches in the prayer hall, and others were sitting around the tombs of Bahadur Shah and his wife praying and socializing. These people were all also Muslims. I saw an immediate parallel between their devoutness at Bahadur Shah’s shrine and the Buddhist centrifugal pull of the Schwedagon Pagoda just up the road.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

In watching the people at his shrine, it struck me that these people did not come here to pay tribute to Bahadur Shah because he happened to simply be the titular “last Mughal”, but rather because they held a saint-like esteem for him and his accomplishments as a poet and dervish.DSCN3102 His shrine emanated its own sacred energy within the shadow of the Schwedagon Pagoda.

Two and half a years after my trip to Myanmar, the country has definitely changed. Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and instead, is a member of the Burmese parliament. The country has begun to open itself the world community, all political prisoners have allegedly been set free, and the tourist sector in the country is experiencing a boom. This could all be for the best as long as the government and people balance this growth with their traditions and preserve the incredibly legacy and monuments of their country. However, there are concerns about what appear on the surface to be ethnic or religious intolerance and violence — especially in Rakhine state where the Rohingya people  (an ethnic group originally from what is now Bangladesh and who are Muslims) are being persecuted by the Buddhist majority there.  But, what I saw at the shrine of Bahadur Shah shows that the Burmese people can certainly embrace different religious practice in the face of coming socio-economic change.  While his small shrine has none of the grandeur or awe-inspiring design of the mausoleums of his ancestors, it also lacks the museum-like austerity of those shrines.  Instead, Bahadur Shah’s shrine is alive and provides a peaceful site of contemplation and community for a Burmese religious minority. It is a refuge — and that’s perhaps more of an enduring legacy than that of any other Mughal Emperor.

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